Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fifteen Fictional Characters

A friend recently posted a note on Facebook with a challenge:

"Don't take too long to think about it. List fifteen fictional characters (television, films, plays, books) who've influenced you and that will always stick with you."

I smiled, reading her list, as I nodded to old acquaintances and wondered about those unfamiliar to me.

Presumably, if you're reading this blog, you've chosen writing as a career, or at least an obsessive pursuit. While making lists like this has become almost cliched in our information-saturated digital world, the exercise has a deeper value for writers.

Recalling the characters who influenced your decision, your calling to become a writer can help you discover the qualities within those characters that made them so appealing. Characterization is the creation of memorable characters, and melds with word choice and sentence structure to form the elusive quality of writing known as "voice". Like art students studying the masters, writers can learn the craft by examining the characters who left the pages and took up residence in their imaginations and memories.

My own list could stretch far past the required fifteen, but for brevity's sake, I'll limit myself to three examples.

1) Frodo Baggins J.R. Tolkien's famous Hobbit.

Frodo traveled into the darkest parts of his world, carrying the token that could destroy all he loved and held dear, with one purpose in mind: destroy the Ring.

What impresses me about Frodo is not his courage or his tenacity, though those qualities are part of his character, but his simple, practical understanding of himself and his place within the Fellowship. He never thought himself a great Hero, rushing off on his white horse to single-handedly slay the dragon, or in this case, the evil wizard bent on taking over the world. In fact, he would laugh at the very thought.

He assessed his strengths, faced his weaknesses squarely, and was content to allow others to fulfill their roles while he did his best to carry his own burden. He was loyal, brave, and had a deep understanding of what was at stake. His practicality and humility gave him depth and made him a memorable, lovable character. He was... is, a true Hero.

2) Leonardo Hamato, Ninja Turtle.

Anyone growing up in the '80's through the early 2000's might remember the corny, goofy, pizza-guzzling Green Machine known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While the iconic '80's Turtles were typical of cartoon characters at that time, joking, talking to the audience and battling comical villains, the 2003 incarnations were older, wiser, and far more aware of the very real dangers lurking in their fictional version of New York City.

They still battled evil. Donatello still created incredible inventions from junk-yard scraps, but in the 2k3 version (as it's known among fans), characters suffered injury, and in one infamous alternate-universe episode, the beloved heroes died in a final battle against their nemesis, giving their lives in order to save a world which had rejected them.

Leonardo, in particular, stands out to me for his loyalty, his strong sense of honor, and his single-mindedness. While the Turtles actually die in the alternate reality of "Same As It Never Was", in another episode Leonardo makes a decision that, save for a last-instant miraculous rescue, would have resulted in the deaths of himself and the entire family. In the aftermath, Leonardo faces his own decision with guilt, frustration and a depth of rage that is rarely examined in children's programming. Because Leonardo's reactions to trauma are real, he is believable. The devil, as always, is in the details, and so is the characterization.

3) The Tao "TJ" Jones, from the book Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher.

Chris Crutcher remains one of my favorite authors for teens. He tackles issues of social justice head-on with the unapologetic, clear-eyed voices of his teenage characters. What makes his creations so unique is their passion. Each of his characters has something they hold dear, whether it is social justice, as in the case of TJ Jones, or loyalty to a friend like Eric "Mobe" Calhoun from his book Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.

TJ's self-admitted pigheaded refusal to back down from a fight, combined with his calm acceptance of his tragic past and his constant pursuit of justice, not for himself, but for those around him who are weaker or less able to defend themselves, make him a character the reader cannot ignore. He is stubborn to a fault, angry and often impulsive. Some of his testosterone-fueled teenage follies may seem outrageous to more sensitive readers, but above all, he is memorable. Love him or hate him, you will never forget TJ Jones.

TJ is a great character because he's passionate. Never, dear writer, back down from what your character believes in for fear of offending delicate readers. A character without passion, whether hero or villain, is a character without motivation, without fire, without the necessary fuel to drive the plot forward to it's full, heart-pounding potential. Without TJ's passion for justice and family, the book's conclusion would have been gutted of its intensity and power.

When I look back at the characters who have stayed with me over the years, I see three recurring traits:

1) Each character was involved in a larger story. Something was at stake, whether it was the fate of the world, the safety of family, or justice for the victims of small-town bullies. If the character had made a different choice, in each case, something precious would have been lost. Each character was needed, and each responded to the need, answered the Call.

2) Each character answered a call that forced them to press beyond their limits. Each lost something precious and had to respond to that loss, either by continuing with the Hero's Journey or by giving up. All good stories involve seemingly-insurmountable challenges. All good stories include the loss of something the character cares about, and all good stories result in the growth of the character through the journey.

3) Finally, each of these characters had unique traits that made them the only one who could answer the Call. Each had particular passions. For Frodo, carrying the Ring meant defending his beloved Shire, even if it cost him his life. For Leonardo, his honor bound him to protect the people of Earth, sacrificing everything he loved. TJ Jones risked everything in the defense of the helpless, and in the end had to learn to live with enormous loss.

A Treasure worth sacrificing for, a Journey of challenges, failures and triumphs, and a Passion. Those are the three ingredients to creating characters your readers will never forget.

~*~*~

"For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day."

2 Timothy 1:12 KJV

Friday, November 19, 2010

Romancing the Muse

Every married couple should go on at least one romantic get-away. It's a chance to reconnect, to make memories, to laugh over the cheese-ball ploys of over-priced hotels (like hot-tubs shaped like giant champagne glasses.)

Romance is essential to marriage. Couples who forget to enjoy one another, who forget how to have fun, fall apart under the stress of day to day life. They forget why they married in the first place, and fall out of love. Their marriage crumbles under the stress of mundane every day and they drift apart, wondering where the excitement went.

Last week I talked about "selling out", writing for no other reason than to earn a paycheck. Now, it's perfectly possible to write what you enjoy writing and be paid for it. That, dear Writer, is the best of both worlds, but, like a good man who's not gay or married, those happy coincidences are sometimes difficult to find, especially for the new writer who is still dipping their toes in the ocean.

Many experts, bloggers, and authors of writing books tout the discipline of writing every day. They nod solemnly and remind us that the route to success is paved with hard work. No one gets there by standing still. You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs. While all these adages are true, and the experts' advice is sound, it's possible to fall into a rut of trudging along, married to the drudge of writing for money.

While setting goals is important, the happiest couples are those who find the fun in every day, who are playful and spontaneous without forgetting the need to get out of bed and go to work every day. Balance is the key, and the secret to balance is finding your spark, the writing you love, whether it's publishable or not, and making room for it in your writing life. Maybe you love to write poetry, or songs. Maybe you secretly enjoy creating new scenarios for favorite characters from your childhood (Writing about characters from books or movies you've enjoyed is not plagarism unless you try to pass the characters off as original. Fan-fiction has a legitimate place in a writer's toolbox. It's not publishable, except for sharing on websites committed to the genre, like Fanfiction.net, but it can be a lot of fun, and wonderful practice.)

Whatever it is that you love about writing, seek it out. Pursue it. Court it. Romance it. Even if it's just a secret affair, wholly separate from your "legitimate" writing, it will stimulate your motivation and keep your Muse enchanted.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Falling behind

As of right now, I am 8,641 words behind to make today's word-count goal. How did I fall so far behind? How did a strong start, consistently making more than goal every day, turn into being almost 10,000 words behind?

I could say life got in the way. It would be true. As I mentioned in my last entry, life has been quite chaotic in our household for the past two years.

I could say I lost motivation. Also true. Most people do in their first two weeks of NaNo. Writing a book in a month sounds like an exciting challenge, and it is... until you realize just how much work it is to write a book, and begin to understand the enormity of the task you've set yourself to accomplish in just thirty days.

I could say a lot of things, but the honest-to-God truth is... I took a break to write some very boring articles for a content provider. Articles that needed several revisions to meet their standards. Articles that I felt nothing for, no passion, no fire, not even an inkling of interest. Why, then, did I write them? Because I needed the money. In short, I sold out, and I'll do it again.

In the first, heady freedom of writing, of putting pen to paper and setting the soul free to soar to new heights of imagination and creativity, I never dreamed I would sink so low. In my fantasies, Writing meant producing brilliant books, reams of precise, witty prose that would have readers smiling and nodding or gasping in pleasant shock, and editors flocking to my door, checkbooks in hand. I imagined life as a wildly successful writer and never considered mundane issues like buying groceries or paying a mortgage. Surely those things would take care of themselves. I'd have an Agent, and she would wave her wand, magically increasing my bank balance, far outstripping the creditors with their grasping demands.

I would live the dream, ascend to the Ivory Tower, live upon bonbons and hot chocolate while I did nothing all day but create. Life, in my dreams of being a Writer when I grew up, looked good. Too good to be true, in fact, and it was.

Any working writer reading this is grinning by now, if not rolling their eyes and chuckling. The Ivory Tower is a myth. There are no fairy-tale endings, dear Writer, save perhaps for the rarefied few who reach truly dizzying heights with their profession, like JK Rowling and Stephen King, and even they put in their time toiling in the fields before being invited into the fairy castle world of success.

It is important, Writer, to decide early on where your journey will take you. Certainly you should be aware that Adventure might find you along the way, and always be willing to change course if the occasion arises, but having a plan, and knowing your destination helps avert disappointment and regret down the road.

First, decide, is your aim to make a living at writing, or to make a difference? Essentially, there are two kinds of writers: The kind who write what suits their fancy, who are willing to consider, and sometimes actively pursuing, publication, but who balk at writing anything but what they want to write. Those are the writers who write little stories for their children, perhaps write an opinion column for a local newspaper, who keep a blog or write novels which then sit in a drawer. Often these writers find small, local publishing success. They aim to make a difference with in the circle of individuals touched by their own lives. They find writing satisfying, fulfilling and necessary. They fill a niche, answer a need, and are content.

The second breed of writer views their writing as a business and their words as a product. They read the Writer's Digest Market Guides over breakfast and spend the afternoons preparing submissions. Their days are balanced between actual writing, and the sale of their writing. They are constantly seeking new markets, new avenues, new revenue streams. They attend conferences, talk to editors, and read magazines with an eye for style and word counts, always considering the new spin they could put on a topic, a new angle that might spark an editor's interest. They are working writers, writing as much to make a living as to create meaningful content. They find writing satisfying, fulfilling and necessary. They fill a niche, answer a need, and are content.

It is possible, even desirable, Writer, to fall between the two categories. Most writers are not in the business strictly for money. We are a strange breed, pursuing a craft that neither pays well nor garners great recognition. Chances are good, a hundred years, or even a year from now, that what we've produced will have been recycled into mulch, long read, digested, tossed aside and forgotten. The articles I wrote this week will be used on a website that might last a month, or six. When it disappears into the digital ether, so will the words I worked so hard to produce.

Why, then, do I write? Why do I keep toiling away here in the foothills, knowing that the Tower among the clouds is beyond my reach, knowing the submissions I send out might never return to me with a golden invitation marked "Acceptance", my ticket into the fairy-tale land of Advances and Royalties?

I write because I enjoy writing. I write because constant submissions haven't yet gained me entry into the royal ball, but I've been invited to other, smaller gatherings. I've made a total of $480 writing for Seed.com, AOL's content provider. Not bad for the 12 articles they've purchased from me. 61,273 people have seen those 12 articles. For a writer who'd like to Make a Difference with my writing, those are impressive numbers. By writing articles for Seed, my circle has gotten that much bigger. For a writer trying to make a living, Seed pays reasonably well for the work I do.

I've made a bit less writing for Pure Content. The work is sporadic, but when Seed has been slow, sometimes Pure Content picks up some of the slack. I also write for a small, hometown newspaper, the Tioga County Courier. The pay is abysmal, but I get the satisfaction of seeing my byline in print and writing about issues that affect my hometown, my neighbors, my circle.

Writer, first decide your dreams, then pursue them. If you would be a novelist, attend classes, join a critique group, go to conferences and schmooze with editors and agents who can help you along your way. Children's author? Join SCBWI. If you would be a journalist, join a professional organization like The Society for Professional Journalists. Learn to read magazines and newspapers and analyze their content. Write articles and submit them. Find your niche.

Second, don't let your niche become your rut. Branch out. Write novels. Write articles. Write short stories, write poems. Just write, and write something new every single day. Writers, dear Writer, write. They find writing satisfying, fulfilling and necessary. Do you want to achieve success as a writer? It's simple: Fill a niche, answer a need, and most importantly; be content.

Rejoicing in the day,
-Mary

PS Two days after writing this post, I committed to a writing marathon, completing 10,374 words in a single day and catching up with the daily goal. That was two days ago, and today I am 3,264 words behind again because yesterday was cluttered with children's birthday parties and taking my daughter to a musical. Once again, life has stalled my writing, but I am unconcerned: I will catch up. This is the writing life. I live my life, I fill a niche, answer a need... and I am content.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Flooding out

Upstate New York isn't known for it's weather. Sure, we have crazy-cold winters, but there are states that boast colder temperatures and deeper snows. We have the leaves in the fall, but Vermont's the place everyone flocks to when the colors come out in the trees. We don't have baking heat in summer like Texas, or tornadoes (usually) like Alabama.

Still, living in the valley as my husband and I do, Spring sometimes brings showers of blessing... which occasionally overwhelm us.

Normally our little creek meanders lazily past the house, content to offer minnows and crawfish for the kids to catch as they splash happily through its gentle depth. It's a quiet neighbor, peaceful... until it rains. Then it turns into the guy neighbors talk about years later, "He was always such a quiet man. I never would've known he had 20 bodies buried in the back yard..."
Our quiet, peaceful little creek can turn into a rampaging river in minutes, and in hours it can become a flood.

NaNo, during the first heady days, seems like a challenge, but doable. "I can handle this," the Writer thinks, as the heady euphoria of having written takes hold. "I'm prepared, it's only 30 days after all. I can do this!"

Like a kayaker approaching the rapids for the first time, the first-time NaNo writer is often full of confidence, certain they are ready. If they've put in the time training, if they've made a real commitment, if they've planned and conditioned themselves for the long haul, they're right. If not... well, let's just say you can't go through the rapids without getting wet.

I started NaNo's first week on goal, meeting my daily word counts with ease, even exceeding them some days. I was right on... and then came The Call. The one every parent dreads: "Come pick up your son." And my heart sank.

For various reasons, my son has had trouble in school these past two years. A LOT of trouble in school. Trouble that led to his being suspended for a full calendar year last January. That's right. The school saw fit to kick my fourth grader out for an entire year. We had a home-tutor, appointments with a counselor... Let's just say it was a long, difficult process. But, in their benevolence, the school decided to allow him to come back in September. A fresh start. A new year, in a new building (he moved up a grade, and so out of the elementary he was attending), new staff. For the first three months, he was like a rocket, flaring toward the skies, dazzling us all with his success. The outcome was sure, we were already patting him, and each other, on the back, the champagne was approaching the ice... and then I got The Call.

Fellow NaNo-ite, sometimes life derails us. As writers, we walk a delicate line between Life and Writing. We long to write... we would happily immerse ourselves deep into the glory of the page, reveling in the creative process, lost to all else around us, but if we do not occasionally come up for air, we find ourselves drowning. We are odd creatures, you and I, like air-breathing water dwellers. We live in writing, we must, it is our sustenance, necessary to our very being, and yet without coming out of the writing sometimes, without surfacing, we would not survive.

Because my son has suffered through two years of the worst public school has to offer, my protagonist will come into contact with a school counselor who will change the course of her life, driving the plot in a new direction and wrapping up several of the conflicts I was uncertain could be resolved.

Life fuels writing. We write because we must, but if we would continue writing, we must also live. Dear writer, do not despair when life drags you to the surface. Take a deep breath, live at the top for as long as it takes, before diving back in. You will find your energy renewed, your writing freshened, your muse inspired. Be a dolphin. Don't just surface for air, leap up, race to the surface and grab hold of life, immersing yourself in the experience of air and light and sound. Revel in your experiences, live them fully and without reservation. When you return to the deep, dark places writing takes you, the oxygen you take in will sustain you and breathe life into your words.

When the floods come, ride them out and see where the waters take you.

Happy writing!

Rejoicing in the day,
-Mary

~*~*~

"God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging."
-The Psalms of David, 46:1-3








Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Gloves on a fence post

Sometimes writing seems to make as much sense as gloves on a fencepost. Yet, we keep on putting words down on paper, keep on weaving dreams, keep on telling our stories. Why?

Because, for the writer, writing is like breathing. It's natural, necessary, and if we stop, we no longer live.

NaNoWriMo is a writer's marathon, a high-speed endurance race that can test the limits of our discipline. Why enter? Why push ourselves to write a 50,000 word novel in only 30 days, especially the 30 days preceding a major holiday season for most of us? Why write a book at all? Why put a glove on a fencepost?

Right now, there are 172,000 people running the NaNo marathon. So far, we've cranked out nearly 200,000,000 words. No, that's not a typo. Two hundred million words, words no one's read in the particular order they're laid down in before. 172,000 new books by 172,000 authors, each with a different reason for why they write what they do, each adding a new voice to the literary chorus.

The farmer who picked up an old leather glove from the side of his road and stuck it up on a fencepost was aware of the value of the pair and he hoped the owner would come along and find it. He put it out there in hopes of helping someone else. Pointless? Perhaps. Unless you happen to be the owner of the other half of this expensive pair.

Why do we put our books out there? In hopes of reaching someone, in hopes of giving them something they need? Perhaps we just like the look and feel of what we've written and want to show it off a bit. Maybe someone will come along and retrieve our offering, and maybe not, but we'll keep putting those gloves on the fence posts, and hoping, one day, they find their way home.


~*~*~*

For those brave souls working toward the finish line, here is a daily total word-count goal guide to help you know if you're on track for 50,000 by the end of November:

Nov. 1: 1667 words
Day 2: 3334 words
Day 3: 5001 words
Day 4: 6668 words
Day 5: 8335 words
Day 6: 10,002 words
Look that, six days in and you're over 10,000 words!! GO YOU!

Day 7: 11,669 words
Day 8: 13,336 words
Day 9: 15,003 words
Day 10: 16,670 words
Day 11: 18,337 words
Day 12: 20,004
And now you've broken 20,000! You're really rocking now!

Nov. 13: 21, 671 words
Nov. 14: 23, 338 words
Nov. 15: 25,005 words
Half way there! Way to go!!
Nov. 16: 26,672 words
Nov. 17: 28,339 words
Nov. 18: 30,006 words
Another 10,000 words gone... you're in the home-stretch!
Nov. 19: 31,673 words
Nov. 20: 33,340 words
Nov. 21: 35,007 words
Nov. 22: 36,674 words
Nov. 23: 38,341 words
Nov. 24: 40,008 words
Look how far you've come! 40,000! There's no stopping you now!
Nov. 25: 41,675 words
Nov. 26: 43, 342 words
Nov. 27: 45,009 words
Nov. 28: 46,676 words
Nov. 29: 48,343
Nov. 30: 50,000
Fireworks! Light show! Chocolate martini toasts! High-fives all around! It's time to celebrate, you've DONE IT! It's been a long, hard 30 days, but here you are, with your book in hand. Congratulations, AUTHOR! You made it to the finish line.